Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.

Hercules, [Robert Graves'] Shipmate (A Book Review)

   I actually only recently became aware of Robert Graves' book The Golden Fleece AKA Hercules, My Shipmate, which is a tot late to the game for a book originally published in 1944. It sets out to be a retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts that reconciles all the myth with plausible reality, which alarmed me a bit because that's exactly what I've been aiming to do! So I definitely felt I needed to read it.
   It reads like some graduate student of Greek Mythology has just written their dissertatoin and graduated and is now trying to show off all their knowledge all in one book. Yes, it only mentions gods in the context of people talking about them, thus doesn't hinge on them actually existing, but it still mentions seemingly nearly all of them great and small and their complex relationships. Basically I felt it was a cosmological mess -- if I'm going to read a big old mess of explanation of all the Greek gods I'd like it to at least be the "canonical" explanation so I've gained something going forward and can make solidly informed literary references to them henceforth, but he clearly changed around the relationships a bit to fit his whim. In particular he jammed a huge major overwhelming theme in of all the numerous male gods essentially being all an effort to supplant one original female god, and while I appreciate the feminism of such a thesis, it seemed a major distraction from what I thought was supposed to be a simple simplification of the myths. That and just, 90% of these gods did not pertain immediately to the story, aren't even mentioned in the primary version of Jason and the Argonauts, and from an editorial decision I would certainly have said cut out all that nonsense.
   So it took awhile to even begin the story because it faffed around at the start with a bunch of confusing and unnecessary backstory about what these people said these gods did or didn't do in this made-up cosmological setting. Finally it gets into the story. I was a bit to relieved the tone is clearly different from what I'm going for, where I 'm trying to put the reader in the moment and flesh out the character and scenes so you can feel you're actually in the scene, he still kind of proceeds in a "I'm telling a myth" way with "then he did this, and then he did this" without really describing the scene except where something was directly pertinent to the action. Another point of annoyance for me was tha while, yes, he stripped out directly indisputable supernatural intervention by the gods and all the mythological creatures, he still had Hercules running around performing totally superhuman feats and generally breaking the tone. This may be partially the narrator's fault, since I listened as an audiobook, but Hercules was given the cliche dumb barbarian voice, but even without the voice I think it was portrayed that was and it just struck me as tone-breakingly cliche and dumb to have everytihng else seem plausibly human and then "seven foot tall" Hercules is talking in dumb barbarian voice accidentally killing people with playful slaps, casually throwing anchor stones, and generally being a cartoon character.
   On this front, for my retelling, I don't really intend to make any appearances or obvious intervention by gods, nothing beyond the characters vaguely believing in them and making attributing things to them that could entirely not actually have anything to do with them, as people would, but I do intend to preserve a small amount of magic and supernatural creatures. For example you already met the harpies -- though I thought it was a bit clever in Grave's version the harpies are just blind Phineas' wicked wife, and the hawks she lets eat at his table telling him they are harpies (and he being blind, naturally assumes they're mythological harpies). Another idea I'm kind of actually thinking of even stealing maybe, is in the original Jason has to sow dragon's teeth, which grow into warriors, whom he kills by throwing a stone amongst them and they all kill eachother in confusion -- in Grave's version a neighboring king and his retinue is visiting the king of Colchis (where the Golden Fleece is) and Jason instigates an intrigue resulting in the visiting retinue confusedly battling the king of Colchis retinue in the night. So this opens up sort of a philosophical question, where, normally, writing an original story, obviously you dont' steal ideas from someone else, but when retelling a classic story, I fully intend to use as much from the original as I can fit, and then, limited by my available time to actually consume and injest later works, where the "original" (By Appolonious of Rhodes) doesn't mention something a later (there's a few later versions still from the "classical era") version does integrating that too if it fits, basically trying to keep everything as canonical as possible ... so if Robert Graves in 1944 inserts an innovative story element I like, is it legit to treat it as "more canonical than something I just made up," or is it recent enough that it should be treated as competing intellectual property?
   Grave's story proceeds fairly well unitl the Argonauts arrive at the mouth of the Danube, where they were headed in my last piece, but then it goes into crazy helter-skelter fast forward -- in his version Jason, Media, and a few others depart the ship and travel alone up the river and back down the the Adriatic Sea but we are told absolutely zero zilch nada about what transpires during this interesting adventure, and we're given for example literally a line about the rest of the Argo then sailing back to the Bosporus, out through the Sea of Marmara to Troy ... and then quick disconnected accounts of it touching here and there and, basically from here on out the book is just a mess that's absolutely all over the place. Granted the original is pretty hard to follow in this part too, but that's the whole point of a retelling!

   In conclusion, the story has some merit, and Graves clearly knew a lot and/or researched a lot about Greek mythology, but he completely lacked a good editorial instinct for what to leave out to smooth the story, and how to keep the tail-end cohesive. I'm somewhat gratified it clearly does not render my pet project redundant. Altogether I give it a C.

   Looking up Robert Graves just now to write this I find he wrote "I, Claudius," which I read and think I found alright. I see on his list of books he also wrote a book about the Byzantine general Belisarius, which I might put on my to-read list because it's a subject I'm very curious about. If I'd only read his Golden Fleece I don't think I'd proceed to read another of his books but being as "I, Claudius" was, from my recollection, not plagued by the same problems, I'm willing to give him another chance.

   In other news, I'm pleased to find I wasn't eliminated in the last round of LJ Idol. I had been very busy all afternoon trying to compile an exact accounting of any day or hour of leave time I took in the last three years, which the immigration lawyer apparently needs, based on weirdly erratic payslips (20% of them seem to have never arrived for some reason??), which basically involved a lot of tedious combing of emails and payslips and data entry and number crunching .... so that I only got around to starting my entry about 1am on a night I did have work at 9am the next morning. So, not ideal! But I'm not home free, I'm apparently in a 24 hour runoff with 7 other people and an "open topic."
   I still think he should just use the fractional elimination system for ties I had invented for ljshootout but I know he actually loves his run-offs. I hate them, we shouldn't be a casualty simply of our busy schedule. I happen to be pretty free this specific 24 hour period but there are other time periods where it would just be no way.
   Anyway I'm thinking of writing about either Jason and the Argonaut's adventures in Colchis (the place where the Golden Fleece is), or what happens at the Danube delta ... ie either immediately before or after the events of last entry.
   Unless of course a non-Argonaut idea strikes me in the next 24 hours. But for now I think I'm just gonna immediately start hammering the keyboard, maybe write both bits and see what comes out best. Who knows!

Tags: argonautica, book reviews, media reviews

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